Second Opinion: Talking to Children About the End of Life

It's never going to be easy talking to kids about death. But it's even worse if you try to sweep it under the carpet or pretend everything's OK.

Death.

It’s a topic nobody is excited to talk with kids about. As a culture, we struggle to know how to best deal with death. But you might be surprised that there are things you can do to help your child work through a death as a youngster and prepare for losses better as an adult.

Don’t replace the loss

Nobody likes to see a child be sad. One friend told me that every time she was sad, her mom would say, “Honey, don’t be sad” — and her mom would hand her a cookie. Now, as an adult, my friend reaches for sweets when she’s sad.

I purchased a goldfish for my young daughter. The cute goldfish did what goldfish do: It swam around the tank for a few weeks, then one day I found it doing a very slow back float on the top of the water.

Not wanting to cause my daughter grief, I did what parents often do in this situation: I bought her another goldfish and didn’t tell her. This one went the way of the first, then the next one went the way of the second. Finally, after about five goldfish, my daughter said to me one day, “Mommy, let’s call this goldfish Maximillion, ‘cause he’s about the millionth fish we’ve put in here.”

I had worked hard to replace the loss and not cause my daughter grief, when really it was because I didn’t know how to handle it.

Talk about it

The more we talk to our kids about death and loss when the stakes are lower, the more tools they will have as the losses increase. Toys that need to be donated, pets that have died, friends that move away are all opportunities to talk with your child about how they’re feeling and to listen to their responses. You don’t have to know it all to help your child know that their feelings are valid.

Let them participate

A child does not need to be very old to attend a funeral. If they can speak — and can make it through a service — try taking them. Sometimes, out of compassion and protection, we want to shield our kids from losses such as death. But the more you talk openly, the better they will understand and build their repertoire for healthy recovery from loss as they age.

Include them in your grief

Let your child see you be sad. When you are working through a loss, you have an opportunity to help your child see healthy loss. Now is not the time for you to prove how tough you are by “bucking up” and looking like everything is OK.

The fact is that when you have a loss, you will grieve; you can do it now, or you can do it later. Teach your child by your example that grieving is part of life, and talking about it — and displaying it appropriately — can help your child become a mature adult who knows how and when to respond to emotions in the best ways.

For more ideas or to participate in grief classes, including Kids Grief Workshops (for kids ages 4-17 and their parents), find us at yakimacompasscare.org under Bereavement Services.